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Rising star of Chinese women’s soccer determines to go farther overseas and better show ‘Steel Roses’ spirit to the world

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Editor’s Note: 

Young Chinese people in the new era are confident, aspirational and responsible. With a global vision, they stand at the forefront of the times, ready to fully commit to a more global outlook. Chinese people accept and quickly respond to the world’s trending schools of thought. Some members of China’s Generation Z have started to practice the tenets of their “global citizen” identity and use their thought processes and actions to influence the society. The Global Times has therefore launched a series of introductory stories to China’s Gen Zers who are interested in different global topics such as environmental protection, equality, and employment issues, and invites them to share their stories, sentiments, and ideas on social media platforms. 

Zhang Linyan (right) tackles Marissa Sheva of Ireland during a friendly match in Algeciras, Spain on February 22, 2023. Photo: IC

On March 5, at the “Deputies’ Passage” ahead of the opening meeting of the first session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, NPC deputy Shui Qingxia, head coach of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, made an exciting appearance much to the joy of countless Chinese fans, including Chinese striker Zhang Linyan.

Zhang, 22, joined Grasshopper Club Zurich women’s team in the Swiss Women’s Super League on loan.

“Soccer is very popular in China,” Shui said in the group interview. “The Chinese women’s soccer team is known as the ‘Steel Roses’ because of the unity, cooperation, and fighting spirit of the team.”  

Shui’s words once again inspired her team member in Switzerland. “The spirit of the ‘Steel Roses’ has always been passed down in the Chinese women’s national soccer team. The difference is that our generation has more opportunities; we dare to go out to see the world, to acknowledge the gap between ourselves and the top players and top teams, and then try our best to shorten this distance,” Zhang said.

“Every soccer powerhouse in the world has its own spirit, and our spirit should not just inspire our own people.” Zhang said. 

She told the Global Times that her goal is to try to become stronger and better at presenting the spirit of Chinese women’s soccer to the world.

Chasing dream from afar

Over the decades, the Chinese women’s national soccer team has been a part of China’s national pride, though not as heatedly discussed as the men’s soccer team. During the Spring Festival holidays in February 2022, a surprising but well-received event sent the nation’s soccer supporters over the moon, as Chinese women’s national team overcame numerous challenges to regain the AFC Women’s Asian Cup title after 16 years.  

In the Asian Cup final against South Korea, Zhang won a penalty for the team when they were down 0:2, and then scored the equalizer. The amazing performance made the “hidden weapon of the Chinese women’s soccer team” Player of The Match, and made her known to a large number of Chinese fans overnight.

This “unexpected” final performance also changed the trajectory of the youngster’s career. After the match, she was presented with an opportunity by the Swiss team Grasshopper. Joining a European team was the realization of her childhood dream, in Zhang’s own words to the Global Times.

“From a very young age, I had dreamed of playing professional soccer abroad, and it hasn’t changed ever since,” Zhang recalled. “At the time, I was training at the Evergrande Soccer School. The boys on the same team as me were given the opportunity to train in Spain, and I asked myself, ‘why not us girls?'”

Another motivating factor for her move was that women’s soccer has seen rapid growth and progress globally, Zhang said. “I think everyone has realized that fact.”

Zhang told the Global Times that after watching the 2022 UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Women’s Champions League and UEFA European Cup, she appreciated the high level of the competitions. 

“I was especially surprised by some of the players who are the same age as me. When we used to play against each other in youth team games, we were at similar levels,” Zhang said. “Recently, however, when I watched their games again, I felt that they improved very quickly and surpassed us by a lot. So, once again, I feel that I really have to play in Europe.”

Currently, there are 13 Chinese women’s soccer players in international clubs. Every time the women’s national team trains, the players fly in from all over the world.

“Our national teammates who play in international clubs are in constant contact with each other. I feel that everyone has become more confident after playing abroad,” Zhang told the Global Times. “I have also become more independent.”

“We also feel like we are better at competing than before,” she said. “Before we went abroad to play professionally, we had fewer opportunities to play games with European and American players. The way they play is very different from what we’ve encountered before.”

However, when it comes to the experience of playing soccer in Europe, Zhang admits there have been certain challenges.

“For example, my club’s teammates all have their own families with them. I feel lonely at times when there are no games or no scheduled training. The completely different language environment is also a challenge,” she said. “But since this is the path I chose for myself, I will face the obstacles along the way on my own.”

The young player said that she wants to stay and play in a high-level European league for a long time, and also dreams of joining a top team in the future to participate in the Women’s Championships League, currently one of the highest levels of women’s soccer competitions in the world. 

“That’s my long-term goal,” she said.

Zhang Linyan is pictured in action in the Axa Women's Super League at Stadion Wankdorf in Bern, Switzerland on November 26, 2022. Photo: IC

Zhang Linyan is pictured in action in the Axa Women’s Super League at Stadion Wankdorf in Bern, Switzerland on November 26, 2022. Photo: IC

Be brave with style

It’s only about four months to go before the FIFA Women’s World Cup (World Cup) opens on July 20. On February 23, the Chinese national team completed their training in Spain with a record of 2 victories, 1 draw, and 1 defeat in 4 warm-up matches.

Zhang, who traveled to Spain from Switzerland to meet the Chinese national team, felt that she gained a lot from this intensive training. “We felt much better than we did before in the warm-up games in terms of energy and physical fitness. We also pinpointed some problems and took note of the gaps within the team, which I believe the coaching team will conduct more targeted training deployment in the next stage of training,” she said.

As Shui said at the “Deputies’ Passage,” they will continue to push the team forward and always try to make the country proud whenever they can. In the face of the three major future international tournaments – the World Cup, the Hangzhou Asian Games, and the Olympic qualifiers to follow shortly after, Zhang said her main goal is to be able to represent China at the World Cup and be able to score goals and help her team win more matches in each tournament.

 “The sportsmanship, perseverance, and passion for soccer exhibited by manager Shui and a lot of the ‘big sisters’ currently in our national team is my motivation to push forward,” Zhang said.

Zhang also noted that with economic and technological development, their training environment is now much more improved than in the past.

“Women’s soccer in the world has not been mainstream for a very long time. Currently, our generation of soccer players has a better life but faces more competitive pressure. But as young Chinese players, we have more personality, we dare to have more ‘brave ideas’ such as the courage to play abroad, which would make us get an objective view of soccer, read the game better, and observe the global trends of the sport,” she said.

As a rising star in today’s women’s soccer, Zhang has received encouragement and support from many people along the path to her career development, including top stars Lionel Messi and David Beckham. “I always remember to learn from them, to learn their technique, and to love soccer more,” Zhang said.

While still young, Zhang never thought about what impact her experience would have on others. But what makes her happy is that, after starting to play soccer at the age of 9, Zhang made a smooth transition from a small county in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province to the world stage. 

“I believe that more girls from all over China will go even further out of their hometowns, into the youth training school, and go out into the world to see the wide range of wonderful possibilities in the future and present the Chinese spirit,” She said.

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